Liza Birkenmeier’s The Hollower exemplifies a new playwright in desperate need of a dramaturg to focus her wild and wildly-dissonant ideas into a cohesive whole.
Looking for more cohesion is not the same as trying to find total comprehension, the latter of which would be too straightforward for a work that seems to aim to reflect the existential confusion of its wayward souls. But without some clarity to the extreme theatrical manifestations Birkenmeier’s expressions take, even the text’s most basic premise becomes lost in a hazy cloud too puzzling to compel the audience to put its pieces together. Like other rookie playwrights — if my peripheral research can be trusted, this production at the Access Theater constitutes her New York debut — she inserts a character whose sole raison d’être appears to be to post-modernly comment on, and even implicitly criticize, the play’s dramaturgy, a sign of Birkenmeier’s justified insecurity that the audience will fail to be receptive to her esoteric communication.
Yet she shouldn’t bear ALL of the brunt of the New Light Theater Project’s production’s faults. Kristy Dodson basically directs the text as is, a crippling artistic choice for a play with such a wide range of tonalities. Instead of forcing the writing do ALL of the talking, she could’ve made a little more sense of the text by deciding on a stronger approach to it. Her straightforward direction lacks much-needed insights into this confounding world. She ultimately comes off as baffled as the rest of us about what to make of what we’re witnessing.
But so it goes for a world premiere play by a first-time playwright. There are enough intriguing elements here to understand why Birkenmeier has two more announced projects on the horizon: a workshop run of Radio Island at Vassar’s Powerhouse Theater this summer, and Tragedy in Spades courtesy of Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop in the spring. The Hollower shows her promise, and hopefully one (or both!) of these upcoming plays will actualize that potential…with the help of a clear-eyed dramaturg and director, of course.